By Matt Kelly
May 17, 2006 — Undergraduate researchers at the University of Virginia are working to improve the health of your body, spirit and computer.
“One of the strengths of the University is how many students are pursuing research, regardless of funding,” said Nicole F. Hurd, assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, which serves as a clearinghouse for undergraduate research projects and awards.
Undergraduates have many opportunities for research, in both hard sciences and humanities, on their own and in concert with others, with support from several awards, including the David A. Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards, the Double Hoo and the Walter R. Kenan awards.
Three graduating students who have taken advantage of these research opportunities are Victoria Chiou, Eugene Otto and Jake Davenport.
Chiou, graduating with a dual major of human biology and psychology, found that patients who write about their illnesses experience significant short-term health benefits.
She pointed to recent studies that listed short-term, clinically significant health improvements such as increased immune function, reductions in pain and doctor visits, and decreased incidence of symptoms related to cancer.
“Writing illness narratives help patients cope with the stress, suffering and trauma of an illness experience,” she said. “By writing narratives about their illnesses, people expressed a full range of emotions and made meaning from their experiences.”
Her research also shows that patients who write about their illnesses understand those illnesses better and this improves communication with their physicians.
“People can tap into their potential,” she said.
Chiou, who is continuing her education at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, said she has always been interested in a “bio-psycho-social understanding of illness” but that she felt something was missing. The narrative of illness is that missing portion, she said.
She worked with English professor David Morris in her research, and received a Harrison Undergraduate Research award in 2005 to assist her investigation.
Otto’s work with computer science professor Kevin Skadron is an example of pairing a professor who is actively involved in cutting-edge research with an enthusiastic student.
As computer chips become more compact and more powerful, the intensity of the heat they
enerate has increased dramatically. To prevent overheating, operating systems use a technique called thermal throttling, which places the processor in a sleep state whenever heat levels approach the upper limits of its safe thermal envelope. While this fluctuation might not be noticeable for browsing, it can interfere with DVD and MP3 playback.
Otto is assisting Skadron in adjusting the Linux operating system scheduling so that thermal throttling is less likely to disrupt high-priority or interactive tasks. “There is already a large safety margin,” notes Skadron, whose specialty is architectures for temperature-aware and power-aware computing. “So you can delay throttling until it becomes absolutely critical.”
To accomplish this goal, Otto had to decompile an Advanced Configuration and Power Interface table written for Windows and recompile it and set it up to run on Linux. “This experience brings together knowledge from a lot of areas, from traditional computer architecture, operating systems, real-time systems, thermodynamics and programming,” Otto said. “It showed me what computer science is all about.”
Skadron has several reasons for encouraging undergraduates like Otto to get involved in research. The first is the high quality of their work, which is both useful and, quite often, publishable. But he also sees it as a transformative experience. “I got involved with research as an undergrad, and it motivated me to go on to a career in academia,” Skadron notes. “I want to provide my undergraduates with similar exposure.”
Otto’s work has been funded by a Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the National Science Foundation.
Some student research is part of a continuum, with students picking up work that others have started and then handing it off to those who come after them.
Jake Davenport worked in professor Cassandra L. Fraser’s lab as part of an effort to find ways of targeting only cancer cells during chemotherapy. The chemicals currently used target fast-growing cells, which includes cancer cells, but also hair, intestinal epithelia and liver cells.
Davenport, a dual major in biology and chemistry with a specialization in biochemistry, worked specifically on synthesizing polymeric metal complexes that can be used as a delivery system for therapeutics in treating cancer.
There was one approach that "could be of great utility in the in vitro testing of hydrophobic drug delivery," said Davenport, who received a Harrison Research Grant to fund his studies.
One of the best lessons of the laboratory, Davenport said, was to be able to take the theory presented in the classroom and work with it in practical terms. After graduation, Davenport, an Atlanta native, will move to Gainesville, Fla., to study medicine.
“This research helped me understand the scientific process better,” he said. “I want to do clinical research and the scientific process is the same there as it is in basic science.”